Pizza delivery game delivers distracted-driving message

Linda Melone

Can rushing to deliver a pizza drive home the dangers of distracted driving? You bet your pepperoni, according to maker of the new video game "Distraction Dodger."

The web-based game, developed by the Intelligent Transportation System Institute at the University of Minnesota, helps teens and young adults grasp the importance of concentrating on driving.

In the video game, a player steers a pizza delivery vehicle through bustling city streets. While behind the virtual wheel, a player is tempted to use a smartphone, social media sites and GPS. If the driver does succumb to distraction, he must avoid obstacles, such as cars along the roadside, as well traffic tickets and other dangers.

"It is our responsibility to realize that the old driving rules still apply," says Kevin Lynch, assistant professor of insurance at The American College in Pennsylvania. "Your hands belong on the steering wheel … , not on a cellphone, soft drink, hamburger, pizza, doughnut or lipstick."

Games like "Distraction Dodger" tackle a serious problem among young drivers and eventually may help lower auto insurance premiums for this high-risk group of motorists.

"Interactive video games may be an effective means of showing teens how their driving behavior can result in an auto accident," says Loretta Worters, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit Insurance Information Institute.

A high price to pay

The behind-the-wheel behavior of teens and young adults can be deadly:

• Car crashes are the leading cause of death among 15- to 20-year-old Americans.
• In 2009 alone, 16 percent of teen drivers who were involved in fatal wrecks were engaged in some form of distracted driving, according to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Distracted driving activities can range from talking or texting on a cellphone to eating food and applying makeup.
• According to the U.S. Department of Transportation, more than 2,000 drivers in the 15-to-20 age group died and another 196,000 were injured in car crashes in 2009.

Games with a purpose

The high risk of teen crashes inspired University of Minnesota researchers to develop the "Distraction Dodger" simulated driving game. As players progress through the game, they receive feedback on their driving performance and their levels of distraction.

"The 'Distraction Dodger' game offers a reality check for young drivers who believe they can do it all," says Michael Manser, director of the HumanFIRST Program at the Intelligent Transportation System Institute. He says such video games offer "a particularly teachable moment."

Since being introduced in February 2012, the free game has been played about 500,000 times, says Michael McCarthy, a spokesman for the Center of Transportation Studies at the University of Minnesota. To play the game, visit www.its.umn.edu/distractiondodger/.

"Distraction Dodger" isn't the only game in town, though. An interactive driving game found on The New York Times website tests a motorist's ability to text and drive while negotiating six lanes of traffic.

Toyota has developed an interactive online game called "Heads Up," which calls for a driver to stay on the road while winding along dangerous curves and responding to text messages.

Drivers start by choosing a Toyota Prius or Yaris. The program lets players customize the action by linking with Facebook, which allows the faces of Facebook friend to pop up on billboards as a driver cruises down the road. Drivers then have three seconds to identify each friend and to respond by hitting a corresponding key.

Insurance costs of distracted driving

Games like these benefit motorists, especially younger ones, "both physically and financially," says Lynch, the insurance professor.

Young drivers who are involved in car wrecks or are nabbed for traffic violations can be hit with auto insurance premium hikes of at least 20 percent to 30 percent, according to Lynch. The same applies to the parents' rates if the teen is on their policy.

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